Last summer, when the NCAA decided to change its name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules to allow college athletes to profit from their fame, the floodgates for brand partnerships opened up immediately. TikTok-famous Fresno State women’s basketball twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder signed with Boost Mobile; Beats by Dre signed Shedeur Sanders, Jackson State’s standout QB (and Coach Deion’s son); and 1-800-Got-Junk signed on Kansas Jayhawks basketball star Mitch Lightfoot.
Now, sports-and-entertainment giant WWE is using the rule change to revolutionize its own talent and recruiting, announcing its new NIL Program—dubbed “Next In Line”—which aims to enhance the recruiting process through collaborative partnerships with college athletes from diverse athletic backgrounds. Like a paid internship for pro wrestling, these new athlete partnerships will feature year-round access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, as well as training and resources on the business side of the organization including brand building, media training, live-event promotion, and community relations. After finishing the NIL program, select athletes may be offered a full-time WWE contract.
Paul Levesque, WWE’s executive vice president of global talent strategy and development, says one of the biggest recruiting challenges has been the non-traditional nature of the business. While sports like basketball, football, and baseball have long-defined pipelines to pro ranks from high school, college, and minor leagues, there’s never been a clear path to becoming a WWE star.
“We immediately saw it as an amazing recruiting tool for us because it allows us to show athletes a path to WWE, and engage with them in a way where they can learn more about it, we can learn more about them, all while working together, and finding out if it’s a good fit before they’re even finished college, and before they need to make any decisions about what they’re going to do in that next stage of their life,” says Levesque.
And he should know. Levesque is better known as legendary WWE superstar Triple H, who originally got his start in wrestling back in the early ’90s when, while managing a gym in New Hampshire, he met power lifter and pro wrestler Ted Arcidi, who gave him a phone number for former wrestler Killer Kowalski. Levesque called Kowalski to pitch himself for Kowalski’s pro wrestling school in Massachusetts. “In my generation, and even more recently, you sort of had to know someone,” says Levesque. “We’ve put a lot of effort into recruiting athletes and finding athletes to let them know WWE is a potentially lucrative opportunity for them if they’re interested and passionate about it.”
Case in point: Olympic wrestling gold medalist Gable Steveson, a WWE fan since high school, signed a multiyear WWE NIL contract in September, ostensibly snatching him from UFC or NFL wannabe suitors. The deal allows him to finish his senior year at the University of Minnesota and defend his NCAA Division I championship title while learning the ropes for his future WWE career.
IT'S TRUE! ????
— WWE (@WWE) September 14, 2021
At a recent tryout, Levesque saw an athlete named Isaac Odugbesan and was impressed. “When we were done with the tryout, I was like, ‘Great let’s bring this kid in now,’ but it turned out he was still in school,” says Levesque. Odugbesan is a shot putter at the University of Alabama and had another year left of school. “That happened right around NIL, so we put a deal together, and he’ll be way ahead of the curve because he’ll be working on a lot of stuff while he’s in school.”
How athletes in the WWE’s NIL program are compensated depends on the individual, what they bring to the table, and the potential the organization sees in them. “The deals might range from the lower end, which would still help them make ends meet while at school,” says Levesque. “Of course, if you’re bringing an Olympic gold medal to the table, it’s a different conversation.”
Ultimately, like any internship, the WWE’s new NIL program gives athletes and the organization a mutually beneficial chance to try each other out before making any big commitments. Levesque sees the new NIL program as key to WWE’s future success.
“It opens us up to a whole world of athletes that we’ve never been able to connect with in this way,” he says. “For us, the next generation of superstars will come out of this program.”